Jim’s Journal: The Best of Tulum, from Big Resorts to Hippie-Chic Boutique Hotels

by  Jim Sherman | Jan 17, 2018
Tulum / soulsphoto/iStock

Travel advice and inspiration from ShermansTravel founder Jim Sherman.

I first heard about Tulum ten years ago from a friend who called it an off-the-beaten-path paradise. Back then, it was just one narrow street running through a sleepy town dotted with small hotels, restaurants, and bars. It’s come a long way since then, and a considerable number of new developments have changed both the look and feel of this place. Still, it remains a jungle-fringed beach oasis, far different from the miles of chock-a-block all-inclusive resorts along the coast near Cancun. 

Of course, these large all-inclusive resorts have many fans, and offer a range of amenities that can't be found at Tulum's many small hotels. When you consider that all food and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), activities from kayaking to waterskiing, and evening entertainment are included, a resort stay can have a lot of value. You’ll find these properties in and around Cancun, and in the nearby towns of Playa del Carmen and Akumal.   

With sky-high prices in Tulum around the New Year, I chose a more affordable but still luxurious option — Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya. This proved to be a great pick, both because the resort itself is first-rate, but also because it’s only 20 minutes north from Tulum, which made it easy to spend a few days exploring there as well. If you fly into Cancun, it’s 90-minute drive to Akumal. The beach front is truly spectacular with its smooth white sand. Plus, there are excellent diving and snorkeling options at the hotels or the nearby Akumal Dive Center.

The property includes 6 restaurants — Italian, French, Mexican, Asian, seafood, and a seaside café. They all were fantastic, except for the Asian restaurant, which proved to be nothing particularly special. Classic dishes like guacamole and ceviche were terrific, as were the margaritas and pina coladas. I made regular use of the fine gym and participated in morning yoga on the beach (a wonderful first for me), and used the really impressive spa. Look for the lowest prices in May, and then again in August and September, when pricing hovers around $450 per night. You can expect to pay around $800 per night in the high-season months of January, February, and March. Of course, it's always a good idea to shop for a deal. Compare pricing across web sites to secure lower rates, resort credit, and other perks. 

Venture off the resort for an excursion to a cenote (a fresh-water lake inside a cave) or to a Mayan ruin. The ruins in Tulum are especially picturesque thanks to their location on the water, or you can head to other ruins elsewhere in the Yucatan — at Chichen Itza or Uxmal, for example. Your hotel can make arrangements for your visit.   

Beyond the ruins, Tulum is a beach town with a casual vibe and it’s full of beautiful people. The crowd is "hippie-chic" — if you can imagine hippies for whom money is no object. This is a place for sophisticated travelers, and you won’t find the tour bus crowd here.

To visit Tulum’s town and beach area, you’ll need to take a $30 taxi ride or drive in your rental car. (Note that parking is limited.) I suggest heading to La Zebra hotel early in the morning. This trendy hotel’s beach area is open to non-guests at no charge. Snag a chair or a beach bed and stay for the day, enjoy lunch on the beach, or walk along the shore to explore other beach bars and restaurants.

If you’re looking to stay in Tulum, it offers some excellent options, including boutique-y La Zebra ($300-$600 per night). Consider the stylish tents and grass-roofed huts at Nomade ($200-$300 per night), wicker-and-concrete minimalism at Be Tulum ($300-$400 per night), cozy garden rooms at Ana y Jose ($300-$400 per night), a fantastic swimming pool at Kore Resort ($300-$400 per night), and a genuine party vibe for a young crowd at Papaya Playa Project ($230-$350 per night).  

With few all-inclusive options in Tulum, you’re free to seek out some of the area’s excellent restaurants. One example is Posada Margherita, an Italian restaurant located right on the beach, about a 20-minute walk north of La Zebra.  Go early if you’re visiting in high season, as the wait can be as long as an hour. If you do have to wait, have a drink and enjoy the beach. I also like Arca; it’s not on the beach but it has excellent food. Hartwood, with its rustic indoor/outdoor dining space, is another trendy place to have a meal, but it’s not worth the hype. A wonderful beach bar for sunset viewing is Coco Beach Club, which is about a 20-minute walk north of La Zebra and close to Posada Margherita. Later in the evening, Gitano is a trendy place to drink.

I found the balance of staying at a nice all-inclusive resort outside of Tulum, while still being able to access the wonderful beaches and nightlife in Tulum a great combination.

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